After a five-day layoff for the bye week, the Carolina Hurricanes are back on the ice Saturday night in Detroit to take on the Red Wings.
The next quick burst of four games in six days could be critical to the season. After losing two straight and limping into the bye week, the Hurricanes find themselves back at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings and two points (adjusted for games played) out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The bye week was a bit later in the season in 2016-17 (February 12-16) but marked the unofficial end of the Canes’ playoff hopes last season. Just like this year, the Hurricanes stumbled in with two straight losses and then proceeded to go 1-3-2 through the end of February. The Hurricanes ultimately surged in March, but it was a case of too little too late.
In breaking down the Hurricanes January and February schedule on December 29, I grouped the upcoming stretch of four games together. The goal for the set is to successfully get the train back on the tracks and moving forward after the bye week without giving up more ground as happened in 2016-17. If the Hurricanes skid into February with another losing streak, the gap could again be too big to make up. If instead the Hurricanes can at least tread water in the next four games with three on the road, the ball will be on the tee for the team to use a stretch of 11 out of 12 at home to rise up the standings and into a playoff spot.
Against that backdrop, here are my watch points for Saturday’s return to action…
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Detroit Red Wings
1) Rested and ready? Or rusty?
As noted above, the bye week was hard on the Hurricanes and just about everyone else last week. The Hurricanes will be playing a Red Wings team that has been ‘meh’ at best thus far in 2017-18 with a record of 18-19-7, but the Wings also come in having played and practiced this week such that they should be up to game speed.
The question is whether the Hurricanes will look rested and ready after what seemed to be a well-timed break after a couple sluggish efforts before the break or whether the Hurricanes will look rusty.
Sebastian Aho is ‘out indefinitely’ with very few details on his status, but Brett Pesce and Derek Ryan both practiced on Friday in regular jerseys and seem likely to play after missing games prior to the break. After even longer layoffs for Pesce and Ryan, they will also be something to watch on Saturday.
In my Daily Cup of Joe for Friday that asked and answered, “What does it take for the Carolina Hurricanes to make the 2017-18 playoffs?” I said that…
If the Hurricanes do not get reasonably consistent league average or better goaltending for the remainder of the season, the chances of making the playoffs become incredibly slim.
As such, I think we have reached the point in the season when the goaltending is an every game watch point.
I have not seen anything naming a starter for Saturday, but regardless of who it is, the time is now to start stringing together a run of solid play in net.
3) Reconfigured forward lines minus Sebastian Aho
In recent weeks, Sebastian Aho had risen to become the Hurricanes most productive forward offensively. For a team that ranks 22nd in the NHL in goal scoring, losing a player who has led the way recently with 9 goals and 5 assists in his past 11 games is obviously a concern. Timing could not be better for Jeff Skinner to find his next goal scoring outburst and carry the team offensively at a critical point in the season. Same goes for everyone else as the team teeters on the edge of playoff chase relevancy in late January.
On Saturday, I will be watching to see if Bill Peters’ newly-configured lines can find a spark and/or if Jeff Skinner and others can find a higher gear in terms of producing offense.
The puck drops at 7pm on Fox Sports Carolinas with John, Tripp and Mike.